Now, let us proceed to consider three important application questions related to Romans 14.
1. HOW CAN ONE DISTINGUISH BETWEEN MATTERS OF INDIFFERENCE AND MATTERS OF DOCTRINE?
It probably goes without saying that sometimes making such a distinction can be difficult. However, God's word does give us the answer to this question. Colossians 3:17 teaches that we must have authority from the Lord for whatever we say or do. We have studied before how God authorizes--by direct statement, by accounts of approved action, by implication, and by expediency (but only after a general obligation has been established). To review these important fundamentals, please study our feature lessons from: 08/06/05, 08/13/05, and 08/20/05.
If divine authority can be established that a certain thing may be done and there is no scriptural authority for not doing it, then that is a matter of doctrine . It is only when you can establish authority for a particular thing and then go on to show that it is not required to be done that you have a matter of indifference . Eating meat is Paul's favorite example of a matter of indifference. Yes, we all have to eat to live, but we don't have to eat meat to live. God has nowhere authorized that man must eat meat, although he may if he chooses. Thus, it is a matter of indifference (or opinion).
How about a more modern example, Stephen? Consider this statement as another example: "Faithful disciples should partake of the Lord's Supper on Sunday." Is that a matter of doctrine or is it just an opinion? It is a matter of doctrine! But why? Because the New Testament authorizes us to partake of the memorial on Sunday and there is no authority for us to not take it. Additionally, there is no New Testament authority for us to partake of the memorial on another day. Now, contemplate this modification: "Faithful disciples should partake of the Lord's Supper before noon on Sunday." Is that doctrine or opinion? That's an opinion! Why? Because God has not bound the exact time of the day on Sunday when we should partake at the Lord's table. As long as we partake of it, the exact time on Sunday is left up to our own human judgment (e.g., Acts 20:7,8).
2. WHAT IS THE PROPER ATTITUDE TOWARD OTHERS IN MATTERS OF INDIFFERENCE?
We've already answered this question really, but let's try to make it crystal clear at this time. Those who approve of a particular matter of indifference are not to despise those who don't approve of it, and those who don't approve of the particular matter of indifference are not to condemn those who do approve of it (cf. Rom. 14:3). This can be challenging for both parties. The one who approves of the matter is often tempted to wrongly think about the other (e.g., "He's so stupid he actually thinks it is wrong to eat meat!"). The one who doesn't approve of the matter is often tempted to wrongly view the matter of indifference as a matter of doctrine and mentally condemn the brother who approves of the matter (e.g., "Doesn't he know that eating meat is a sin and will lead to eternal destruction?"). Instead of either extreme in attitude, the wise will remember that the Lord is the judge and that there is a difference between opinion and doctrine.
In all things we should strive to develop an attitude of love for our brothers--especially when we disagree with them. Isn't that consistent with other New Testament passages? Romans 12:10 reads - "Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another." Galatians 5:13 - "For you, brethren have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another" (cf. Eph. 5:2; I John 4:20,21). In these matters of opinion let us pursue peace always and let us do our best to build each other up spiritually (cf. Rom. 14:19). Elevating one opinion above another is not conducive to this end.
3. HOW SHOULD ONE ACT TOWARD OTHERS IN MATTERS OF INDIFFERENCE?
This question is a logical extension of the previous one. If our attitude is proper, then we should be able to act in a way that is in harmony with our loving disposition. For example, if a brother believes that it is wrong to eat a meal in the church building (and I know Christians who believe such), then how should other Christians treat him? This is a matter of indifference, and we should show him brotherly love and respect in the following fashion:
(1) For the time being, do not engage in any fellowship meals in the church building. To continue to have such meals after learning that a brother feels such is wrong is definitely not the loving thing to do. It communicates to the brother that the fellowship meal is more important to us than he is. We need to remember that having fellowship meals in the same structure where worship takes place is a matters of opinion--it is okay to have them there and it is okay to have them elsewhere (cf. Jude 12; Acts 2:46). Surely all can see that a congregation can be faithful without eating a meal together on the church's property. It would be a sin to continue in such meals if the brother is weak and is tempted by our influence to give in and sin against his conscience. Any loving Christian would not want to put his brother in such a position. Rather, fellowship meals should be held elsewhere until step #2 is accomplished.
(2) In a kind and understanding way, show the brother why the Scriptures teach that it is acceptable to eat a meal in the church building. Time will certainly have to be spent properly explaining the meaning of I Corinthians 11:17ff. Over time he may see the truth you present and agree with you, but don't pressure him just to get your way on a matter of opinion.
But Stephen, what if after we patiently teach him he still holds a different opinion than we do? I believe it would be fair to ask the brother if he would have an objection if others started having fellowship meals in the building again on occasions. If it appears that he would be tempted in any way to violate his conscience and join us, then the wise and loving thing to do would be to not reclaim our "right" to eat in the building out of love for our brother's soul. Let's be honest, is that really such a big deal? Paul tells us that love doesn't seek to get its own way (cf. I Cor. 13:5). Although having fellowship meals elsewhere will cause more work and inconvenience, isn't love for a sincere brother worth it? As Paul said in I Corinthians 8:13 - "Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble." If fellowship meals in the church building make my brother stumble, I will never again suggest such.
Dear friends, the Bible is God's word and it is worthy of our diligent study and application (cf. II Tim. 2:15). Of course, it is sometimes the case that while studying, questions arise on various issues. This is good. Sometimes difficulties will arise out of these questions. But, let us always remember that God loves us and we must love each other. Will that sometimes involve setting aside our "rights" on a matter of opinion? Absolutely, but it is sometimes the only course of action that is pleasing to God.
As we conclude, I believe it is necessary to make one final point. Our focus has been upon matters of indifference and we have seen what brotherly love demands. However, in matters of doctrine, brotherly love requires something different. Yes, it requires the same attitude of kindness and gentleness, but it does not require that we give in to the conscience of another.
For example, if a brother came to me and asked me to baptize his infant daughter, I would say "no." If he said that he believed that she must be baptized and that he just couldn't live with the thought of her perhaps dying without being baptized, I would still say "no." I would explain to him what the Scriptures teach on the subject--namely that baptism is for those who have reached an age where they understand that they have committed sin and are in need of having it forgiven (cf. Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Babies can't do this. Baptism is for those who have faith in Christ and are willing to turn away from sinful living (cf. John 8:24; Luke 13:3). Babies can't do this. Baptism is for those who will confess their faith in Christ (cf. Rom. 10:9,10; Acts 8:37). Babies can't do this. And finally, baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, and his infant daughter has no sins in need of being forgiven (cf. Acts 2:38; Eze. 18:20). Baptism is not a matter of indifference, and the New Testament teaching regarding it should not be compromised--not even in an effort to please someone or in an attempt to avoid offending them.
Sadly, I've heard it stated before when a matter of indifference is being discussed that "If we give in to them on this issue, then it will be something else next week and we'll have to keep giving things up." That statement is simply not true, and it is nothing more than an excuse to get one's own way and not have to show brotherly love. Yes, you may give up some preferences out of love for fellow brethren because God expects you to do such. However, God never expects you to give in on a matter of doctrine. This is why distinguishing between the two is vitally important, which emphasizes further the need for deep Bible study and pursuit of the truth in all things.
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.